EPE TIG Week: Environmental Volunteer Motivations: Place & Space by Cat Scharon

Hello! I’m Cat Scharon, research assistant with Inform Evaluation & Research (Inform) and a student at the University of Pittsburgh’s Ed.D program, focusing on Out-of-School Learning. I’ve spent my career working in informal spaces including museums, zoos, and aquariums, and since joining Inform have rekindled my focus on lifelong STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) and environmental learning.

Engaging and retaining volunteers is an ongoing challenge for environmental organizations; however evaluating their motivations can provide some insight into what makes these vital participants keep at it.

In the 1990s, Stern, Dietz, and Kalof proposed a useful social-psychological model for thinking about value orientations that I found helpful to frame our thinking. They define these orientations as egoistic (for personal benefit), social-altruistic (for humanitarian benefit), or biospheric (for environmental benefit). Building in part on this research, McDougle, Greenspan, and Handy later suggested that the latter two motivations are more likely to positively predict pro-environmental behaviors, but not necessarily an inclination to volunteer.

Several of Inform’s recent evaluation projects have looked at ecological stewardship and nature-based outreach programs that engage volunteers as participants and co-creators in environmental work. In conducting our studies, we found three major takeaways for these organizations:

  1. Volunteers are intrinsically motivated. In general, volunteers participate for the benefits to their community, their environment, and their own well-being.

  2. Volunteers appreciate personal connections. Social ties to staff and peers fostered and reinforced volunteers’ desire to participate.
  • Volunteers are deeply connected to place. Volunteers not only want to see the land thrive, but they feel deeply rooted to a specific site.

Lessons Learned

  • Volunteers often identified more closely with the people and places making the environmental work happen, not the organizations themselves. Some of this confusion comes down to marketing. When reaching out to related listservs and social media to promote an event, keeping a consistent, high-level brand identity is important to help potential volunteers know where to go to find out more. Over time, you might even help create a sense of community and belonging around your mission!
  • Fostering a sense of belonging is another critical component to creating a thriving volunteer community. McDougle, Greenspan, and Handy also noted that social connection is a key motivator for some, particularly amongst the increasingly diverse generations of volunteers who are coming of age. Providing time and space for socialization doesn’t have to detract from the important environmental work being done; it can actually create a more engaged and invested set of participants and future environmental leaders.

Rad Resource

Conducting interviews with volunteers in the field (literally and figuratively) proved to be one of our most valuable data sources. In order to collect data across dates and times, I used the Rev Voice Recorder app to record, label, and upload files for transcription. You can also create teams and manage permissions for your data collectors to do the same.


The American Evaluation Association is hosting Environmental Program Evaluation TIG Week with our colleagues in the Environmental Program Evaluation Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to AEA365 come from our EPE TIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this AEA365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the AEA365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an AEA365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to AEA365@eval.org. AEA365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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